Netflix’s Maniac From the Perspective of a Person with Schizophrenia

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I spent the weekend binge-watching and reading articles written about the new Netflix series Maniac. From Slate to Rolling Stone, none of the writers for the magazines loved it as much as I did and not one of them gave enough attention to, what to me, was the most important, groundbreaking, enduring, and thrilling part of the whole show. The gem I am referring to is, there was a character who has paranoid schizophrenia (like me) and wasn’t a cookie cutter stereotype like almost every other character written into a movie or television show where the writers try to explore one of the most stigmatized and baffling of the mental illnesses.

As someone who has lived with paranoid schizophrenia for over two decades, I wouldn’t say I am an expert, but I do know a thing or two about the disorder that writers usually get wrong, mess up, or rely heavily on worn-out stereotypes like the mass murderer, the genius or the lovable clown.

One of the main characters (Owen) is sensitive, frightened, unsure, intelligent, heroic, courageous and has a sense of integrity and insight into his illness. I have never been more excited or pleased to see schizophrenia on the screen as I was this weekend.

Don’t get me wrong; the writers don’t ignore some of the more troubling symptoms of schizophrenia for example hallucinations, delusions, conspiracies, seeing patterns in random events, and the desire not to take medication. All those details are there, but so is a likable and complex character that people can imagine wanting to get to know it real life.

The show also deals with addiction, borderline personality disorder, loss, grief, and complicated relationships as well as a wide range of emotions. I found it to be a playground of delight for those of us who for whatever reason, through necessity or curiosity, love psychology, therapy and the world of the mind. The scenes are graphic (two are reminiscent of Pulp Fiction) and many are colorful, fantastic and a treat for the eyes.

Maniac is easily my favorite show this year, and it ranks as my all time favorite show that deals in any way with schizophrenia and it may become one of the few shows that I watch multiple times and put on my list of best I’ve seen.

 

A Guided Mental Illness Journal & Workbook: Build Confidence and Coping Skills

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Here is the cover of my new guided journal/workbook. It contains writing prompts, tasks, and exercises to think more creatively, increase motivation, learn new skills and basically help you think past the symptoms of mental illness. I will be donating 10% of my royalties to Third Avenue Charitable Organization (TACO) to help with the work they do with the homeless and low income in my community. Many of the people they serve have a mental illness. The workbook is available on Amazon.

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An Exploration of Life, Death, and Being Rich

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At night before I go to sleep, I pray/meditate. I frequently imagine myself at the edge of the ocean, looking up at the magnificent star-filled sky, thinking of the expanse, marveling at the creation, wondering about the Creator. I imagine myself sitting in the sand, lighting a candle for every person I know who needs support, care, healing, a boost to their finances, or is battling one problem or another. I can sometimes light these candle for fifteen to twenty minutes. I don’t leave out my enemies because I hope that the fact that they are trouble in my life will have a resolution and they will no longer fall into that category. This quiet time in my day, just before sleep, is when I think of others, make my requests known, and try to figure out what it means to have a relationship with God.

Two nights ago, after lighting the candles for my family, my friends, and my adversaries, my thoughts roamed to the leaders of this country and the idea of rich people. What do rich people, I mean really rich people have that I don’t have? Mostly they have access to people and places that I would not be allowed entry or access. They might meet the CEOs of companies or dine with a celebrity. But on the other hand, I can read the same books they do. I can watch the same movies they watch (theirs might be viewed in a home theater or at a private screening and mine might be experienced in a worn out robe, on my couch, on Netflix), but I can enjoy many of the same things the rich do.

And do you know where this thought process, imagining, trying to discover my place in the universe and my relationship to humanity and the creator led me? I see the same sky that rich people do. I watch the same sunrise and sunset that they do. I can smell jasmine while walking down my street. I can walk on a beach and dip my feet in the ocean. I can climb a hill or hike up a mountain. I can swim in a lake. I can enjoy good food and a great cup of coffee. Money, if you have it or if you don’t, that doesn’t prevent you from experiencing many of the mysteries and pleasures of creation.

And the greatest of all equalizers is that there is nothing that insulates the rich from death. We are all going to die, and that evens the playing field. The homeless have to walk the path, I have to walk the path, middle-class people have to walk the path, and the super rich have to walk the path. We will all find ourselves far from the sunrise of our lives and deep into the evening where death is a reality and something we can’t avoid. It may sound morbid to think so much about this, but it ties me to humanity. It is one of our most profound and significant threads that weaves our lives together. We are connected whether or not everyone wants to see it, or admit it.

So many people are using their money to stop the aging process, to get the best medical care, to eat the healthiest food, to hire trainers, and yoga masters, etc. It all boils down to the same things, in the end, none of us can outrun it, none of us can pay our way through it. I don’t find this terrifying, I find it liberating, and I feel like I have a connection to everyone. It is beyond belief the way we try to separate ourselves from one another, to mark and point out our differences only to discover that the largest things in our life are something we all share.

We will all close our eyes for a final time. I’m not on a race for my day, believe me. But it amazes me that over seven billion people alive today will have to come to terms with it in one way or another, it is inescapable, it is profound, it is us, it is human, it is our journey, it is life, and like birth, everyone must experience it, ready or not.

Unwind My Mind

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My mind is like Twizzler candy, all in a twist. Two weeks ago, I finally got up the courage to make a doctor’s appointment and have two spots that people keep telling me to see a doctor about checked. One, I have had for twenty years (I got it checked once ten years ago, and the other, has been growing on the side of my face for six months to a year).

At the dermatologist, I whooped and squealed when they said, the spot on the side of my face is a barnacle and is benign. I got up the courage to show the doctor the other, older, more ominous spot on my shoulder and she said, “Oh, that! Of course, people are concerned about it because they see a pocket of blood, but it is just a grouping of broken blood vessels. You will probably see more of them on your body as you age.”

For the first time in over two years, I don’t have a major medical concern that might be cancer, lead to surgery, or need medication for treatment. Right now, I am relatively free from serious medical concerns except schizophrenia. That hasn’t helped my mind, though. My mind is still in, “I’m probably going to need serious treatment, and I might die mode.” Considering chemo, radiation and two different types of surgery for over two years has caused a type of catastrophic thinking in my brain that is now automatic.

I am a big believer in trying to rewire the brain to break destructive habits and create a more positive, happy, productive existence. Not only does it take time and effort to break negative thinking patterns, but it also takes some calm, some peace, and some distance from the crisis. I just started to get that distance on Tuesday (four short days ago).

When I look in the mirror, I still catch myself avoiding looking at the left side of my face to keep from seeing the round patch of discolored skin there, because I tried so long to trick myself that if I didn’t see it, it wasn’t there and couldn’t be cancer. I also catch myself avoiding drying my breasts with a towel after a shower because I don’t want to accidentally feel the 14 cm (or one of the smaller) masses that have lodged there, thus reminding me of the tests I still need or that I am waiting for results.

Most of us with schizophrenia know the statistics. On average our lives are twenty years shorter than the national average. I am keenly aware that I am in my fifties and will be celebrating another birthday in three short weeks. I am a few short years away from the bleak statistic.

Nevertheless, I want to go from crisis mode, from catastrophic thinking to believe I will live until I am at least eighty. So, every morning I tell myself, “It is possible for me to live until I am eighty.” I know this seems almost childlike in its simplicity, but it is helping untwist my very tired and traumatized mind. Thinking that you might have to deal with life-threatening medical problems for two years straight is exhausting. I believe it changes the way the brain functions and it has a huge impact on our future outlook.

I told my husband the other day; I am tired, so deeply tired. This should be of no surprise to me or anyone else. I don’t need physical rest; I need emotional rest. I need not think that death is looming or surgery, chemo, radiation, etc. are right around the corner. My mind has been like a warrior preparing me for the worst for over twenty-four months.

I have so many friends who have faced these things and received worse news than me and had to go through these treatments. I am not trying to compare my negative diagnoses to their more difficult positive ones. I am not trying to insinuate that my experience is more difficult or even on par with theirs, I am not. I am only saying that my brain has now been trained to be in crisis mode, in preparation for the worst mode, in bad news and worst-case scenario mode, and I can see and feel the consequences of that.

Now, it is time to retrain my brain and like I started out this blog piece saying, my mind is twisted. I keep telling myself positive things and keep catching myself doing frightened, scared, nervous, uncertain things.

I went with my husband to the doctor to get a bump on his back checked out, and I told the doctor, “I’m sorry, I have schizophrenia, I worry about everything.” The doctor said, “That has nothing to do with schizophrenia, I worry about everything, too.”  I believe that, and that’s why I’m sharing with you.

Truth

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My husband and I are planning a vacation. We are going to a beach town on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. If you look up the Sea of Cortez, you will discover it is rich in marine life; there are good places for hiking, bird watching, fishing, snorkeling, great conditions for boating or kayaking, and of course miles of beaches to walk. Not all of you, but many of you would enjoy a vacation like the one we are planning. A bonus is that compared to the same type of vacation in many countries, Mexico is relatively inexpensive. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?

Why then am I so overwhelmed with anxiety? That is the thing about having my particular brain disease or mental illness, or however, you choose to describe it. Nothing is easy. For most people, planning a vacation is fun, exciting, and the trip is either relaxing, educational, cultural, or a combination of many things (like a foodie trip or environmental tourism). For me, the thought of leaving my routine and being far from my doctors, and from my pharmacy cause me tremendous amounts of stress.

When I was a teenager, I traveled to New York, London, Rio De Janeiro, Cairo, and many other countries and cities by myself. I wasn’t anxious. I wasn’t afraid. I was up for anything although my first love was clothes shopping (I loved buying clothes that no one I knew at home was going to have or be able to get. Being original was very important to me). The fact is even well into my thirties; I could travel by myself without fear or anxiety.

If it were just travel that made my life more difficult than many people, I wouldn’t think that was too big of an inconvenience because we only travel about five times a year give or take a couple of times. But everything with schizophrenia is harder. It is harder to write; it is harder to go to a party, it is harder to go to the doctor (my pulse soars to 150 or above every time I enter any kind of doctor’s office).

I don’t feel sorry for myself, but when I am honest, the truth is, I am a little more tired than most people I know. When daily living takes so much effort, it can be exhausting. I know that I am more fortunate than millions of people, I practice thanksgiving and gratitude every single day, but to act as if my life is perfect all of the time and that schizophrenia isn’t a significant life challenge that would be a lie.

I have preached, written about, and tried for years to get everyone to see me as a whole person, a person with many identities, roles, relationships, skills, and talents. If somewhere in all that convincing I ever made people believe that schizophrenia is a small part of who I am and doesn’t impact me in every corner and crevice of my life, I have misled you.

Schizophrenia is the dog, and I am the leash. I have some control over where it goes, and what it can do but as a powerful animal, it can always break free if I’m not careful and maybe even if I am. It’s a beast and a burden, and you have to walk it, care for it, and pay attention to it twenty-four hours a day because unlike a dog, it doesn’t sleep.

Faith and a Late Night Prayer

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In the city, it is easy to think about man. In the desert, mountains and on a night at the beach, it is easy to think about God. Last night during my prayers, I wanted to search for God, so the image I brought forth in my mind was me, at seventeen, in Cyprus, walking the beach at night.

I can remember looking at the black sky filled with distant lights and thinking, “What did our ancestors think when they looked up from where they were sleeping and saw this vast and endless sky?” “Those lights hold the answers,” I told myself into my pillow. And that is why while I pray, I imagine that beach, that half moon, those stars that will always be countless.

“Some people think schizophrenia is the same as demon possession,” I say as I imagine my toes, bare, sinking into the wet sand. I know that can’t be true because if it were, it would mean doctors had learned how to silence demons.

I wonder as I imagine the light of the moon reflecting on the water, “Can you disregard the Ten Commandments, seemingly lining up to break every one, and still come back to the title of daughter or son?” The stars blink, winking at me from this Greek Island where I imagine myself walking while I lie in bed.

My cousin has cancer. Several of my friends have cancer. I have lost people to old age, tragedy, and hard living. “I’m not unique in my suffering; it is so important to remind myself,” I almost say out loud. If I die at fifty-three, I will have lived more years than many, and far less than others. It is not a curse I carry but the story of the reality of life.

A cloud covers the moon. The beach becomes darker than before. I say to myself, “So many people criticize Christianity, so many people say it is all fairy tales, and call those of us who believe ignorant, hypocrites, and fools,”  but I can’t go on each day without knowing I can call to you,  question you, run to you from the world that is harsh, violent and sometimes painfully beautiful.

The lights in the sky are shining, and I don’t hear you, but I see you all around. Each star, millions of them leading me to the answers I seek on a beach and ocean far away while the covers on my bed surround me and call me to sleep.

 

 

An Invitation to Normal

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On Sunday night, I went to a Rod Stewart and Cindi Lauper concert at an amphitheater approximately twenty miles from my house. My husband and I took two of our friends, and before the concert, the four of us had a picnic (tailgated) in the parking lot. Our seats were lawn seats, but even though those are the cheapest seats, it was a great place to sit because the lawn is sloped, you can easily get up and dance, and there are plenty of big screens so you can see what is happening on stage in case you forget your glasses like I did (oops!).

My husband didn’t listen to Rod Stewart as a teenager, but one of my friends and I knew almost every word to both artist’s songs. I suppose there is nothing remarkable about going to a summer concert in Southern California, sitting on a blanket on a warm night, sharing a carafe of wine (I’m the only one who doesn’t drink because of my medications, but I had water!). I guess to most people, that would be pretty normal, and that’s my point.

If you want to help someone with a mental illness, include them in the plans you make that are “normal.” I can’t do or go everywhere because of symptoms but some of the best times I have are just participating in things that others take for granted like movies, concerts, coffee shops, a lunch date, having someone drop by my house because they are in the neighborhood.

When I read the comments from people with schizophrenia in the groups that I am a member of, one of the main complaints is that people are lonely. I know that having a friend with schizophrenia can seem different, uncomfortable, or odd, but most of the time people won’t have to “work” at the friendship or accept any more idiosyncracies than they would with any other friend. You know your friend who is always late? You know your friend that double dips their chip in the salsa or hummus? You put up with those behaviors and end up saying, “Oh well, that is just so and so.”

Those of us with schizophrenia can be a “so and so” to you too. I have to get past uncomfortable feelings every day; maybe it’s time we all try to do it and include someone with a mental illness in our plans

Changing the Landscape of Normal

Changing the Landscape of Normal

Most marriages start from a position of equality. Both partners are expected to “pull their weight” and contribute equally to the relationship. I can’t think of anyone who wants to build a partnership of lopsided responsibilities. Over time, with illness and age, a vast discrepancy between one person’s contribution and the others can develop, though, and the reality of one person taking on more in the relationship than the other is likely the longer the two are together.

That’s the norm. That’s the expectation. We start out young, healthy and happy and we grow old, or sick together, the stronger caring for the weaker depending upon what ails us.

My marriage never started this way from the beginning though, and with one in four American suffering from a mental illness and half of Americans suffering from a chronic disease, the landscape of what is normal, or expected is changing.

In my house, we concern ourselves every day with medication times and the amount of food to be eaten with each dose. We live around making sure doses are not missed, and that food is available. We go to the doctor every few months for blood draws and check-ups and visit the pharmacy to refill medications once a month. Those are the most visible signs of illness in our house, but they are not the most difficult, or challenging.

It is the panic attacks that can derail brunch with friends, or cause a cancellation of a six-month planned vacation that is harder to live with than the daily maintenance. The most terrifying and difficult thing though is the possibility of a break from reality. There are no classes or preparation for a spouse that has an episode of psychosis that can be brought on by trauma, addiction, bipolar disorder, or in my case, schizophrenia.

My husband would be more than uncomfortable with the label of caretaker. That title just doesn’t suit him when it comes to our relationship and the reality of us. My husband has the chronic illness sarcoidosis, and when he gets sick (which is frequently) I am the one who makes him honey and lemon tea, checks his temperature and calls the on-call nurse to see if we should go to the doctor, etc. I  am also the one who cheers him on when he gets a promotion or award at work. I am his biggest fan and the number one person who looks out for him.

My husband has a more significant role in the caretaking arena than I do, but the reality is we care for each other. His illness is more easily understood than mine, and the symptoms are more socially acceptable (he doesn’t hear voices, or believe he is talking to God). But if social media is an indicator on how far we have come to overcome stigmas and fixed notions of relationships that are a carryover from the past, then we have made progress. Not a single day goes by when I don’t read about someone struggling with anxiety, autism, mania, depression, or hallucinations on social media. There is some truth to the fact that otherwise private experiences are now put out in public for all to consume.

With so many Americans dealing with physical and mental health issues, the landscape of partnership, spouses, marriage is changing. What was once said by most couples getting married, a vow to care for each other in sickness and in health, is now more of the given than a promise we make to each other.

 

 

 

Changing the Landscape of Normal

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Most marriages start from a position of equality. Both partners are expected to “pull their weight” and contribute equally to the relationship. I can’t think of anyone who wants to build a partnership of lopsided responsibilities. Over time, with illness and age, a vast discrepancy between one person’s contribution and the others can develop, though, and the reality of one person taking on more in the relationship than the other is likely the longer the two are together.
That’s the norm. That’s the expectation. We start out young, healthy and happy and we grow old, or sick together, the stronger caring for the weaker depending upon what ails us.
My marriage never started this way from the beginning though, and with one in four American suffering from a mental illness and half of Americans suffering from a chronic disease, the landscape of what is normal, or expected is changing.
In my house, we concern ourselves every day with medication times and the amount of food eaten with each dose. We live around these details. We go to the doctor every few months for blood draws and check-ups and visit the pharmacy to refill medications once a month. Those are the most visible signs of illness in our house, but they are not the most difficult, or challenging.
It is the panic attacks that can derail brunch with friends, or cause a cancellation of a six-month planned vacation that is harder to live with than the daily maintenance. The most terrifying and difficult thing though is the possibility of a break from reality. There are no classes or preparation for a spouse that has an episode of psychosis that can be brought on by trauma, addiction, bipolar disorder, or in my case, schizophrenia.
My husband would be more than uncomfortable with the label of caretaker. That title just doesn’t suit him when it comes to our relationship and the reality of us. My husband has the chronic illness sarcoidosis, and when he gets sick (which is frequently) I am the one who makes him honey and lemon tea, checks his temperature and calls the on-call nurse to see if we should go to the doctor, etc. I  am also the one who cheers him on when he gets a promotion or award at work. I am his biggest fan and the number one person who looks out for him.
My husband has a more significant role in the caretaking arena than I do, but the reality is we care for each other. His illness is more easily understood than mine, and the symptoms are more socially acceptable (he doesn’t hear voices, or believe he is talking to God). But if social media is an indicator on how far we have come to overcome stigmas and fixed notions of relationships that are a carryover from the past, then we have made progress. Not a single day goes by when I don’t read about someone struggling with anxiety, autism, mania, depression, or hallucinations on social media. There is some truth to the fact that otherwise private experiences are now put out in public for all to consume.
With so many Americans dealing with physical and mental health issues, the landscape of partnership, spouses, marriage is changing. What was once said by most couples getting married, a vow to care for each other in sickness and in health, is now more of the given than a promise we make to each other to be cashed in on at some distant point in the future.

Right, Wrong, Fear, Justice?

I don’t like to think about the, “What ifs” or the, “That could be me” scenarios. I like to go about my days thinking about writing, about what is for dinner, about the environment and the hundreds of other issues I care about. I don’t like to have my illness, schizophrenia, or the worst of it, brought to the forefront of my mind.

Of course, I think about the fact that I have schizophrenia every day, it is, unfortunately, a constant companion, but I have made peace with the majority of what the symptoms and their consequences look like for me.

There are those days though, those walking down the street days and encountering someone who is screaming and gesturing at someone who only they can see. Those days when the news reports that the police shot a mentally ill person who couldn’t, but they interpret as wouldn’t comply with their commands. Those days, I can’t escape the terror of what my illness does to some people.

People try to use polite terms, and I appreciate that “an unwell mind,” but the truth is a psychotic mind is a ravaged mind. Psychosis untreated is uncontrollable, unpredictable, frequently terrifying, fraught with voices, and delusions, conspiracies, both Gods, and demons.

I think I have only vocalized my greatest fear once, and that was to my husband. I like to be the person with schizophrenia who everyone says, “You can’t have a mental illness! You are so normal!” Although those statements cause me some sadness, it also makes me breathe a sigh of relief. I can pass. I can pass in stores, and streets, and restaurants, and other places I like to go to. I am a middle-aged woman with nothing remarkable going on. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Last Thursday the State of Tennessee put Billy Ray Irick to death. It isn’t the fact that his execution was botched and it appears that he was tortured to death, that makes me go to the dreaded “what ifs” and “That could be me” thoughts. It is the fact that Billy Ray was most certainly mentally ill (he spent time in a psych hospital before the rape and murder) and there is some evidence to suggest he may have been experiencing psychosis during the crime.

Here it is, this is my biggest fear: I will become psychotic and hurt someone, and then the doctors will prescribe medication, and I will become aware of what it is that I did, and have to find a way to live with it. That guilt, that knowledge, living with that scenario is worse to me than the death penalty.

To start from the beginning of this, I don’t believe in the death penalty for anyone, but giving the death penalty to a mentally ill person seems particularly barbaric. Was Billy Ray capable at the time of the crime of distinguishing between right and wrong? Did he hear voices? I’m not suggesting that there should be no punishment for the mentally ill who are dangerous (a small portion of the people who live with a diagnosis are dangerous), but I have been psychotic on many occasions, and I know that I was not responsible for the things I did. How could I be responsible when I thought I was Jesus, or talking to God, or listening to the Holy Spirit? How can a person following orders from celestial beings be in control of their actions? They can’t, and you can’t understand it unless you have experienced psychosis and then returned to clarity.

Psychiatrists and therapists and some artists like to imagine that they know what it is like to lose complete control of your mind and your actions. I suggest that they are simply imagining knowing unless they have experienced what so many who are mentally ill have experienced. If justice is receiving a guilty or not guilty verdict by a jury of your peers, then why not have those of us with firsthand knowledge hear the cases involving the mentally ill? If the lawmakers keep passing laws but never consult the people who are affected by those laws, is that fair? Is that just? How can people know what is right if they don’t know what they are dealing with in the first place?

It’s a dilemma, a situation, a crisis that needs to be solved. Lives, treatment, and ethics depend on it.